Sunday, July 1, 2012

Dash it! What's the point of a hyphen? Help Nest feature # 6

Hyphens, em dashes and en dashes.  They all look the same so where, dear reader, should we use them?  In fact, why should we use them?

Before I present you with this Help Nest feature (thank you Judit), I should declare a deep and long-hidden secret.

For a very long time, I really didn't know there WAS such a thing as an 'em' or an 'en' dash.   I spent the better part of my forty years in complete ignorance. This was until one of my grammarian friends said, 'no, Andrea, you don't use a hyphen there, you use the elegant em dash'.

As for hyphens, I tend to use them in a cavalier and careless stream-of-consciousness* way in my writing.   

This is not entirely treason, as it seems that rules and uses of the hyphen (or its cousins the em or en dash) are really quite loose and used in any number of creative ways to aid expression.

As the image above suggests, the hyphen is going the way of much punctuation. There tends to be an inclination toward minimalism and they are used less and less.  However, what I have attempted to provide are a few examples of how they might be used, to what effect and some of the rules of their use.

One of the most common uses (given in the example below) is to join compound words.

noun + adjective
noun + participle
adjective + participle

Oxford dictionaries online (accessed 2 July, 2012) 

Our friends at Purdue, in their excellent resource on hyphen use, describe how hyphens can be used for prefixes such as 'ex'  ('ex-officio') and 'self' ('self-assured').  They also explain how hyphens come in handy for separating words at the end of a line.  However, they stress this should be after a syll-

The University of Sussex, explains the cardinal rules of hyphen use.  These are to use them to achieve clarity in writing; to avoid unnecessary use and to consult a well-regarded dictionary for consistency.

On the last point, they give the example of  'land-owners, land owners or landowners?' to highlight how confusing the hyphen can be. In my Oxford Concise, it is 'landowner'.  I have seen it written as 'land owner' in The Daily Telegraph (UK) .  Although I did not see any hyphenated versions of the word, I did find an online definition of 'land-holder in the Collins Dictionary.  See why it's so confusing?

Roy Peter Clark, in his whimsical work The glamour of grammar (2010) describes a novel use for the b----- hyphen, which is to leave letters out of a word to partially disguise its profanity.   The bl--dy hyphen, he explains, is sometimes used to simply replace the vowels when cheeky editors are feeling a bit bold.  He pays homage to the hyphen by saying that (in addition to the ellipsis) it can be your best friend when leaving something out of a text for the sake of brevity, taste or dramatic effect.

The em dash—and I had to cut and copy this dash from another source because I forgot which keys to use—is longer and used to separate or shift thoughts midstream through a sentence.  I find it easy to see why some people swear by it but tend to forget to use it because it is cumbersome to insert.  (One important rule is never to put a space before or after it.)

The en dash is half the width (-) of the em dash and is used to show a range in numerical or other values. For example, 46-102 or November-January. As you can see, I couldn't figure out how to put in an en dash so I used a hyphen.  (I am sure purists would not approve and would adroitly know the six key combination to use to insert the correct punctuation.)

In summary, I would not expect you to use my blog post as a definitive guide (given my opening admission).  However, I would ask you to consider that hyphens and other dashes are handy; the purpose of each is different and there is an abundance of (sometimes conflicting) advice to find on the internet or in style guides.

I do welcome (as always) your comments and suggestions for other readers.  Finally, thank you to Judit for her query on the Owl/Possum Help Nest on June 5 which inspired me to research hyphens and their dashed friends further.

* Stream-of-consciousness was something I learned this morning when reading a couple of chapters of Henry James's The portrait of a lady.  Yes, reader, James coined this handy term to describe the free-falling, wide-ranging thought patterns of his lovely protagonist, Isabel.   Just thought I'd share something I found interesting.   :)